Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement
Believe it or not, the second-generation Mazda CX-9 is already six years old. But it still looks clean and fresh, and its driving dynamics also continue to deliver. Even so, six years is a long time in the automotive world, which is why Mazda gave the CX-9 some styling and tech updates for 2021 to help keep it relevant.
In the case of my range-topping CX-9 Signature test car, 2021 brings a trio of exterior changes. The grille is now finished in Titanium Gray Metallic, there are larger exhaust outlets around back and the whole package rides on new 20-inch Brilliant Silver wheels. None of the changes are earth-shattering -- especially the bland 10-spoke wheels -- but the CX-9's design remains handsome overall.
Slide into the Signature's cabin and you're greeted with an attractive, straightforward dash built from some really handsome materials. The dash and door panel toppers are soft to the touch, the hard plastics on lower portions are well finished and the Santos rosewood trim makes the whole interior look premium. In addition, the first- and second-row Nappa leather seats get new diamond-quilted bolsters and contrasting piping, while the real aluminum accent trim now sports a patterned finish.
Those updates join the other premium fixings in the CX-9 Signature, such as three-stage heated and cooled front seats, heated second-row captain's chairs and a soft, leather-wrapped, heated steering wheel. There's also a standard sized moonroof, which will disappoint fans of gargantuan panoramic glass tops, as Mazda doesn't offer one of those.
Space in front is generous with comfy and supportive front buckets, large door panel compartments and a sizable center armrest. The middle row captain's chairs are on the flat side with enough space for adults, but the rearmost seats are incredibly snug. Head- and legroom for anyone above 5 feet, 6 inches tall is basically nonexistent, but at least there are cup holders and a couple of USB ports back there for any kids you bring along.
In the cargo space category, the CX-9 falls behind its competition. With all seats deployed, there's 14.4 cubic feet behind the third row, which grows to 71.2 cubic feet when both rear rows are folded. In comparison, behind the rearmost seats, the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander offer 16 cubic feet of storage space, while the Kia Telluride features a hearty 21 cubic feet. With the two back rows flipped down the Honda (82.1 cubic feet), Kia (87 cubic feet) and Toyota (84.3 cubic feet) all dwarf the Mazda.
The most noteworthy update to Mazda's biggest crossover is the addition of a 10.3-inch center infotainment screen. The big display comes standard on all CX-9 models, offering crisp resolution and passable graphics, but this still isn't a touchscreen, so you'll have to fidget with the center console controller to enter destinations into the Signature's standard navigation system.
Even without touchscreen capabilities, Mazda Connect is a fairly intuitive interface, running a 12-speaker Bose audio setup, satellite radio, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi hotspot. If you dread Mazda's tech, and some on the Roadshow staff do, you can opt to hand infotainment controls over to either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto.
The CX-9 definitely doesn't lack power points, with a wireless charge pad located at the base of the center console, USB charge ports within easy reach of all three rows of seats and 12-volt outlets in the front and trunk area.
On the driver-assistance tech front, every CX-9 comes with adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert. My Signature tester's safety tech menu is beefed up further with front and rear parking sensors, a head-up display, traffic sign recognition and a 360-degree camera system with respectable image quality.
Every CX-9 is motivated by a 2.5-liter turbocharged I4. When running 93-octane fuel, the big-block four offers up 250 horsepower and 320 pound-feet of torque, with the latter online at 2,500 rpm. Running regular 87-octane gas is also possible, but output drops to 227 hp and 310 lb-ft. Either way, the CX-9 feels downright lively in Sport mode when accelerating away from stops, and continues to pull strong throughout the middle of the rev range, making easy work of passing slower traffic and seamlessly merging onto expressways.
Working with the CX-9's engine is a six-speed automatic transmission, which is archaic by today's standards given the proliferation of eight-, nine- and 10-speed gearboxes. In operation, though, there's not much to complain about with the six-speed, as it delivers smooth, well-timed cog exchanges and it helps return class competitive EPA-estimated fuel economy figures of 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway.
The Mazda's drivetrain, however, is on the coarser side of the sound spectrum and slight vibrations are detectable when you wind things up towards the engine's 6,300-rpm redline. The CX-9 gives up some in towing compared to its V6 rivals too, with a 3,500-pound capacity. The all-wheel-drive Pilot, Telluride and Highlander can all pull 5,000 pounds.
Down the road, the CX-9's ride is buttoned-up, with the suspension taking the edge off small to medium impacts, and the cabin stays impressively hushed from annoying road and wind noises. Toss this crossover into a corner and its body motions are always kept in check, with just the slightest dive under braking and lean at turn-in before hunkering down and running through turns. The 20-inch Bridgestone Ecopia H/L 422 Plus tires offer plenty of grip. Add in responsive and well-weighted steering along with stout, easy-to-modulate brakes and you have a three-row crossover that offers the sportiest reflexes in its class.
The Signature version of the CX-9 pictured here is a pricey fella, stickering for $48,575 as tested. Mind you, it is packed to the gills with standard all-wheel drive, a fancy Nappa leather interior and all the driver-assistance technology you could want, but I'd be willing to give up some goodies for a softer blow to the bank account.
For my build, I'd begin with an all-wheel-drive Touring model that begins at $39,025, including $1,175 for destination. This trim comes standard with 18-inch wheels, a leather interior and heated front seats, and must-have features like blind-spot monitoring and LED headlights come equipped on all CX-9s. I'd then plunk down for the $395 Snowflake White Pearl Mica paint job and $2,060 for the Touring Premium Package, mostly for the Bose sound system, satellite radio, front and rear parking sensors and wireless phone charger. All in, my ideal Mazda rings in at a more reasonable $41,480.
The 2021 Mazda CX-9 begins at $35,335 including destination with front-wheel drive, putting it right in the same ballpark as Honda, Kia and Toyota. Upgrading to all-wheel drive tacks on an additional $1,900. While the CX-9 doesn't offer as much function as its rivals, the Mazda packs a healthy dollop of style, a truly premium interior and tighter handling chops than the others. If those emotional traits are enough to look past the cramped third row and cargo space, I wouldn't blame you. But if they aren't enough to outweigh the deficiencies in practicality, I wouldn't blame you for looking elsewhere, either.